Before you speak, ask yourself, is it kind, is it necessary, is it true, does it improve on the silence? -Sathya Sai Baba

Tuesday, May 24, 2005

Poetry gets you laid, maybe a little transcendence, and not much else...

Ted Kooser on making money in poetry

Ted Kooser is our current Poet Laureate. I instinctively mistrust any appointed position approved by our current monkey-in-chief, but he seems to have a good head on his shoulders. I like him for what he writes, and for his inherent understanding of how we are as poets. We are torn between serious and sexy, between wanting to write "important" poems, and wanting to be adored and understood.

One of the things I've learned recently, or rather, the lesson I am trying to learn, is the fruitful struggle in attempting to reconcile seeming opposites. There seems to be something in this sexy vs. serious thing that seems ripe for that reconciliation. The "difficult" poem has, in the hands of a skillful interpreter, the potential to make itself known.

I remember seeing W.S. Merwin almost 13 years ago, now. He was an OK reader, if memory serves. But he really didn't have me. Then I saw Joy Harjo, and I was devastated. I still remember the poems she read about a woman giving birth in a reservation hospital that knocked me out and left me reeling for days afterwards. That poem changed the way I viewed childbirth, western medicine, and racism. One poem did all that - one poem, and the voice of a powerful interpreter: part teacher, part shaman. She changed my brain permanently.

We have the ability, as performers, to make poetry that is accessible and profound, to guide our listener/readers through the difficult passages with our voices as golden thread.

So, I think there is a fertile middle ground waiting for us to work - performers and poets who can bring our listeners into that liminal space where they are taken beyond hip-hop and moon/june/tune into something more. "Serious" poetry given voice by sexy people who understand how to enjoy and play with the difficulties and the knots. That way we don't have to teach poetry, we create a space in which people can experience it and love it the way we love it.

As a side note, I also love that Kooser worked as an insurance adjustor. I feel you, my brother in insurance.

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